Interview: Tao Lin On Money

Written by David on February 17th, 2009

When Moriah Jovan and I began our cross-blog series on how authors can best get paid for their work, I thought it would be a good idea to interview a few non-blockbuster writers who are successfully making it happen.  One of the first writers to come to mind was Tao Lin.

I was going to wait until we were a bit further into the series to start approaching such writers, but shortly after I started following him on Twitter, I saw a Tweet from Tao Lin stating that he wanted to read Susan Sontag’s diaries and was anyone willing to trade for it. I replied, saying that I would trade him a copy of Reborn for a five-question written interview for this series, or for three of his drawings.

Lin replied with a private message, agreeing to do the below interview in exchange for the book.  I’m very satisfied with this trade.

A poet, novelist, short story writer, blogger and essayist, Tao Lin successfully conquers each of the three not-very-simple steps I believe writers must traverse in order to make money.

  1. Make It Good: Tao Lin has found an audience that truly appreciates his unique voice.  He has created his own standard of good-ness, and his fans eagerly eat up whatever he produces.  Some loathe his writing, but they really don’t matter.  No writer can please everybody.  By the standards and tastes of Lin’s readers, he is most definitely good.
  2. Be Discovered: Few writers today, especially at the more literary end of the spectrum, promote themselves as effectively as Tao Lin.  Whether he is shoplifting or harassing Gawker writers or possibly pretending to be an applicant to be his own intern or trying to get someone to publish selections from his Twitter account for $50, he seems to operate under the belief that all publicity (that he initiates) is good publicity.  True, most people have not heard of him, but Lin knows how to get his name in front of those who are part of his target audience, and he does so using techniques that will likely appeal to that target audience.
  3. Determine the Most Effective Means of Generating Income and Do It: Most famously, Tao Lin successfully sold six “shares” of his as yet unwritten second novel to investors for $2000 per share.  He sells his drawings and other things he has lying around his apartment on eBay (because he can).  And he even sells a fair number of books.  Simply put, he’s doing whatever is necessary to capitalize on his writing and his personal “brand” (somebody please suggest an alternative word).

Lots of people write and talk about using creative techniques to sell books.  Tao Lin actually does them.

Interview with Tao Lin

David Nygren:  No writer wants to have a crummy day job.  It seems you are managing to live without one.  Both in terms of your personal spending and your income, what specifically are you doing to avoid having a crummy day job?

Tao Lin: I have had part-time jobs almost continuously since college (I am 25), I think, except for maybe one year when I shoplifted batteries and Moleskine journals to sell on eBay. I stopped working at my last part-time job last August when I sold 60% of the royalties to my next novel, RICHARD YATES (Melville House, 2010), for $12,000. Since then my money (other than the $12,000) has come from selling pre-orders and lifetime subscriptions to books that a press I started called Muumuu House is publishing; Christmas and Chinese New Year’s money from my parents and brother; and selling drawings, drafts of things, and various “piles of shit” from my room on eBay.

In terms of spending money I feel that I spend recklessly and do not make a strong effort to conserve money. I lose money fatalistically at casinos. I spend maybe an average of $30 a day on food. Maybe I just don’t spend much money on things that aren’t food. For some reason I have almost always felt confident that “I will never run out of money.” In the past when I didn’t have enough money for rent or something I would work hard on selling pre-orders on my blog for whatever book I had coming out next or on drawing things and selling them on eBay, and the amount of money that I wanted to make would be made. On average I probably have spent $14,000 - $26,000 a year the past four years.

I feel that within 2-4 years I will have steady cash flow from royalties from my books, foreign sales of my books, foreign royalties from my books, and other writing-related things. I feel secure financially and maybe have not ever “felt poor” without also feeling in some way that I was “being dramatic.” My parents paid for college and I have no debt. None of the jobs I have had have required college degrees.

DN: What portion of your income is from sources other than book sales/royalties, and what are those sources?

TL: Currently maybe 60% of my money is from non writing-related things including getting like $1000 from my brother and parents for Chinese New Year and my birthday, having a job (prior to last August), and selling art on eBay and pre-orders on my blog. Before that specific part-time job from last August maybe 85% of my income came from shoplifting things and selling them on eBay.

DN:  With your blog (heheheheheheheeheheheehehe.com), you are essentially giving Tao Lin content away for free.  Even if it’s not your reason for doing it, do you believe that the self-promotion that comes from the blog helps earn you money from increased book sales (or in other ways)?

TL: I feel that having a blog increases the amount of abstract space “Tao Lin” takes up in people’s lives. When a person looks at my blog they see my name and the books I have published (the header), causing other information that they “know” to exist less, to a degree, and be replaced by information about me and my oeuvre, which causes them to be more inclined maybe to buy my books or talk about me during awkward silences, when hanging out with people, or when trying to make their emails longer if they can’t think of other things to type to friends or family.

Also I feel that if I did not have a blog some things I “make” would not be seen by anyone, or would be seen by a significantly smaller number of people than current, due to there not being large and receptive venues for them, I think. For example I made graphs in Photoshop and posted them on my blog. I feel it would be difficult, or that I would not be motivated, to get a magazine or some other venue with as many hits as my blog to publish those graphs. When people see that I can make graphs they feel like buying my books. In conclusion I feel that my blog is one of the most powerful tools in my lifelong goal of achieving steady cash flow without a real job.

DN: Do you think the only way for a poet or fiction writer to make serious money with their work is to get media attention?  Is there any other way to make enough money to live on with writing?

TL: A writer can make serious money by getting grants and awards, I think. I don’t know much about grants and awards. I feel like I’ve mostly just “forgotten” to apply for grants and awards (like ethnic awards, I’m thinking) the last four years. I plan on applying for grants this year. I have looked at websites and noted deadlines (in the “drafts” section of my Gmail account).

DN: You’re currently published by the independent Melville House Publishing.  Since you are responsible for much of your own publicity, do you think you could earn more money by self-publishing your books? Or does MHP do enough for you to justify the sharing of profits?  This is not a criticism of MHP or any other publisher.  I’m just trying to address a core question:  with all of the self-publishing options now available, is an established publisher necessary for a writer to make money?

TL: With Melville House I’m not responsible for most of my own publicity. They do publicity. They have a full-time publicist. They send out probably 200 or something review copies, try to get places to review me and write about me, write letters to reviewers and go to book festivals and things like that to promote their books to foreign publishers and various bookstores. They place ads in magazines sometimes and they have a website that has a blog. They have a distributor who sells the books to bookstores (they just acquired distribution from Random House). They make catalogues, something like ten thousand, or one thousand, or something, and mail those to places. They go to meetings with sales people from the distributor to convince them to promote whatever book heavily to whatever venue, then those sales people from the distributor go to meetings with sales people from bookstores and other venues to try to get the bookstores and other stores to order large quantities of whatever book.

I feel a publisher is necessary maybe 99% of the time for a writer to make a comparable amount of money, unless they already have books out, have fans, write readable books, feel able to get media attention, and decide to start their own press, in which case they would be their own publisher.

Based on my experiences so far with my press I feel that currently I can not earn more money self-publishing. But that in 2-4 years I might be in a position, having an amount of influence and media attention and books out, to self-publish and not have a distributor, and either be my own distributor (creating some kind of distribution system or something), or just sell books online, on a blog or something, and make a comparable amount of money.

[Note:  Since I belatedly realized that I could not limit myself to five questions, I told Tao Lin that the next three questions were optional but that answering them would entitle him to two-day shipping for Reborn.  Lin said he would answer the questions but that he did not feel an urgent need for the book so I should not send it with two-day shipping.]

DN:  Some criticize you for your money-making schemes, like selling advance shares of your forthcoming book Richard Yates.  They believe it is a “gimmick” for a writer to make some kind of conscious effort to try to make money.  I know this is a softball question, but do these people make you angry and, if so, what would you like to say to them?

TL: They don’t make me angry. I don’t feel they are wrong or I am right or anything. I think I just don’t think beyond “oh” for many things including things like that. If their shit-talking is funny I feel amused. I don’t have something to say to them. If someone thinks I should die or something, and actually attacks me in concrete reality, I feel like even that is okay, that I should accept my death if someone wants badly enough to kill me.

DN: Do you hope to make money from your literary press, Muumuu House, or is this a labor of love that will only generate revenue insofar as it promotes the sales of your own books?

TL: I feel it is possible for me to make money in the future with Muumuu House, and I feel that I will work hard so that I can make money. However “making money” is “inextricably tied” with “just doing something so that there can be things to do instead of feeling bad,” “trying to have more people know about you so that you can meet new people for various purposes,” “doing things to feel excited,” and “doing really ‘retarded’ things in order to relieve boredom, like buying a large billboard on Houston street and putting a hamster drawing on it (I thought about doing that today).” In conclusion I did not start Muumuu House thinking that its purpose was to make money, however making money with it is not something that I never think about.

DN: You’ve written that you’d like to see your forthcoming book Shoplifting from American Apparel sold at American Apparel.  Are there other non-traditional venues where you think books can and should be sold?

TL: I don’t think anything “should” anything. I think books are probably already being sold at all places they can be sold at with an amount of success.

[Note: I also sent Lin two optional questions unrelated to money, hoping he would answer them but explaining that no additional goods or services would be offered if he did answer.  He answered both.]

DN:  It seems you are vegan. What are your top three favorite restaurants in NYC?

TL: Pure Food & Wine, Bonobo’s, and Lifethyme. Lifethyme is a grocery store, I could not think of an obvious third restaurant.

DN:  How did you meet Ellen Kennedy? Can you tell us a few things about her?  She has nice eyes.

TL: She pre-ordered my first poetry book long ago. Her first poetry book, SOMETIMES MY HEART PUSHES MY RIBS, will be published March, 2008 by Muumuu House. Her favorite graphic novelists include Daniel Clowes and Jeffrey Brown, I think.

End of Interview

There you have it.  A few points in summary (my interpretation, not necessarily Tao Lin’s):

  • Even with media attention most writers would kill for, it is still very difficult for a writer to earn enough to live on through book sales alone.
  • It’s good to have generous relatives.
  • A blog, or some other online vehicle of self-promotion, is essential to keep a writer’s existence in the forefront of his or her readers’ minds and can also serve as a useful outlet for otherwise difficult-to-publish material.
  • Writers would be wise to take advantage of all income-generating techniques they have available to them.
  • Publishers are still invaluable to writers for a variety of reasons.
  • Even if a writer starts his own press, he should not even think about trying to create his own distribution system.
  • Writers will last longer if they have thick skins and are willing to accept criticism.
  • Don’t ask Tao Lin if anything “should” be anything.
  • It is very difficult to avoid the temptation of spending a lot of money on food in New York City.  Pure Food and Wine is an excellent restaurant, but when I once ate there the bill was over $200 for two people.  Lifethyme is a good organic market that also does prepared foods (including a fantastic raw vegan lasagna), but I cut my grocery bills in half when I joined an annoying food co-op.  Although all the stimulation can work wonders on the imagination, all of the expensive culinary temptations in NYC make it a difficult place for a writer to afford to live.  On the other hand, you don’t have to have a car here.
  • Sometimes it pays to pre-order books from a little-known writer at the beginning of his career.  He just might get moderately famous, start a publishing house and publish YOUR first book.

Other Reading:

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8 Comments so far ↓

  1. Feb
    17
    11:36
    AM
    preshest

    Very insightful post. Thanks Tao Lin for giving us the DL on your
    money philosophy and providing just an ounce of hope for those of us
    trying to market the sometimes unmarketable. I don’t necessarily want
    to read your books, but I find you as a person quite interesting.

  2. Feb
    17
    11:55
    AM
    David

    But you just might find some more of that person you find so interesting in those books…

  3. Feb
    17
    2:36
    PM
    German

    I like some of what I’ve seen of Tao’s writing but I feel like his method of earning money just would not work if more writers tried to emulate him. The novelty would wear thin. I know that emulating Tao Lin isn’t the suggestion here, but it still seems like such a struggle for any writer to make a living by writing. That goes double for anybody working in the literary realm. He does have all the basics nailed down pretty well, I agree. Unfortunately those basics just aren’t enough to earn a proper living unless you want to write total crap for the masses. Even then the basics probably are not enough most of the time. It’s a wonder anyone wants to write at all, yet so many of us do even though it pays less per hour than developing nation sweatshops.

  4. Feb
    17
    5:09
    PM
    MoJo

    I know that emulating Tao Lin isn’t the suggestion here, but it still seems like such a struggle for any writer to make a living by writing.

    I think for me, Tao Lin is more of an example of how far out of the box you could think.

    I, personally, am not this innovative and, in fact, I’m the stereotypical writer-curmudgeon-hermit who resents the marketing grind. On the other hand, Tao Lin’s example does open my mind to possibilities I hadn’t thought of before, and then it kind of goes from there.

  5. Feb
    17
    5:21
    PM
    David

    Exactly what I was thinking, Mojo. Every writer needs her own twist but hearing about interesting stuff others have done is good fertilizer for the imagination (fertilizer in the positive sense, not in the sense that fertilizer=shit).

  6. Feb
    18
    12:29
    PM
    Kat Meyer

    this is my alltime favorite blog post ever this week. It’s got a smart/funny author, a smart/funny interviewer, books, publishing insight, humor, shoplifting,and a summary i could easily adapt to a “rules to live by” for my own life.
    Thanks, David. You’re alright!

  7. Feb
    21
    3:35
    PM
    vigilantrattlesnake

    I enjoyed reading this interview, but I have to admit I am a bit jealous regarding Tao’s carefree attitude towards money. It helps having a generous family–or low expectations/requirements for living.
    I like the idea of his book on sale at American Apparel–it reminds me a little of the Charlie Parker CDs at the counter at Starbucks, but all of these places are selling a lifestyle (clothes and coffee are secondary). If you can speak to a particular niche, and find out where they congregate, it makes perfect sense to “complete the package.”

  8. Feb
    27
    9:57
    AM
    Kimmy

    “Some criticize you for your money-making schemes, like selling advance shares of your forthcoming book Richard Yates. They believe it is a “gimmick” for a writer to make some kind of conscious effort to try to make money.”

    Again, I’m sorry to keep posting, but I just discovered this “scheme” and it is just amazing to me that in all the back and forth about its morality or whatever, people just forgot the basic math that makes this a terrible, terrible deal for Tao.

    Whoever advised him on this gave him very bad advice.

    Again, it’s simple math. He sold 60% of something for $12,000.

    He loses money if what he sold is worth more than $12,000.

    His shareholders’ gain is his loss.

    They risked their $12,000, true, but he’s risked a lot more.

    Only if he makes exactly $20,000 from his royalties, did the shareholders pay what the shares were actually worth.

    But the assumption is that Tao’s royalties will be more like $50,000.

    He will then only get his 40% share, which is $20,000. His shareholders will get $30,000 for their investment of $12,000.

    He will have gained that $12,000 but given up $30,000 for a loss of $18,000.

    I have absolutely nothing against Tao Lin. He may be an absolute wonderful person. If so, I feel sad for him because the more copies the book sells, the more money he will lose.

    He will gain the most, theoretically, if the book sells no copies.

    Again, I’m sorry to belabor the point, but I would like someone to address my simple math.

    Am I totally missing something?

    Is it that hard to understand?

    If you’re going to present him as someone to emulate on financial matters, then you’re obligated to show me how he can make money this way. Or that any writer can.

    It defies arithmetic, logic and common sense.

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